In the last century, Brazilian Augusto Boal developed Theatre Of The Oppressed, which would later be dubbed as Forum Theatre to help the underprivileged around the world. Cardboard Citizens have been making theatre for the homeless and underprivileged for 23 years now, and are the leading UK based maker of Theatre Of the Oppressed.
The method is simple. First the theatre makers put on a play, or in the case of Benefit, three short works that intertwine. In this case they are plays about the people caught up in the net of the benefit system, with no way out or seemingly with no real help being provided.
After the interval is where the excitment begins. Two member of the group take the part of conductors, with the audience offered to join in. Members of the audience are asked to go back to key moments in the play (after voting on which of the three to focus on) and then replace one of the actors to show how the character could, or should, have acted better. Or at least better.
The first half of the play is an unremiting tragedy. This a show about people caught up in forces beyond their control, in every case wanting to do better but being pushed around by a system. The fact that they are all based on real individuals lends weight, a terrible tragic weight. There is Kafka-esque comedy in many of their situations, with bureaucrats and bosses saying things that would be hilariously absurd if it wasn‘t for the fact that those lines are destroying the life of the people involved.
It is the second part of the show where the real excitement comes in. In a theatre setting forum theatre combines the exhilaration of amazing improv, with the risk of audience participation and debate of a furious political exchange. Make no mistake, there are no easy answers in this play, which provides a fertile ground for discourse.
The MC‘s do a masterful job of guiding the conversation to its most fertile points. There are several great moments, part of the excitement being that there is literally no one in the room that knows what is coming next. Even in a nice polite theatre audience tensions are high towards the end, I can only imagine what they would be with the intended audience: people actually caught up in similar situations.
Benefit is sure to provoke a feeling of helpless fury, followed by perhaps a pitcher of hope in those that watch. Forum Theatre remains one of the most important forms available to artists, theatre that just might change something for the better. Take a friend, preferably one that doesn‘t usually have the strongest opinions on the world and I promise you‘ll see a new side of them by the end of the show. 4.5/5
Review written by Ingimar Sverrisson.
Benefit is currently showing at the Pleasance Theatre until Sunday 8th March. It will also be on tour until Saturday 13th June. For more information on the production, visit here…